Where have all the walrus gone?

Yes, I wondered too. After all the kerfuffle at the beginning of the month there’s been rather dead silence [see my last post here]. So I Googled and found some tidbits.

Chukchi Sea walrus, June 2014. US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Chukchi Sea walrus, June 2014. US Fish and Wildlife Service.

An article a few days ago at one media outlet (October 8, 2014) asked someone from the WWF what happened to the ~35,000 females and calves onshore near Point Lay, Alaska — because really, who else would you ask? Or, perhaps more to the point, would anyone at USGS be expected to answer?

And one online media outlet found walrus specialists in Alaska unwilling to lay all the blame for the recent massive haulout at Point Lay at the feet of low Arctic ice levels due to global warming. See what you think.

UPDATE added below October 13, 2014

From the BusinessInsider:

According to a spokesperson for the World Wildlife Fund, the animals have probably dispersed by now, after eating up all the food in that area.

Here’s what a spokesperson for the World Wildlife Fund had to say over email:

According to our expert, there haven’t been any flights over Point Lay since the Sept. 27 report, so there isn’t an update on the count of walruses. Most likely, the 35,000 walrus are no longer there. Haul outs don’t usually last very long and with 35,000 walrus there won’t be enough food for them to stay. Such a large number of walruses probably cannot stay in the same place for very long because they will have to travel longer and longer distances to find food. Experience from previous years, has shown that around this time, walruses at Point Lay typically start filtering over to the Russian haul outs. [my bold]

Read it all here.

UPDATE: meant to add this. One of the very first stories on this phenomenon, published September 30, 2014 (Alaska Daily News), contained this comment by a USGS biologist Chadwick Jay that virtually every other outlet left out:

“By now, the Point Lay walruses may have moved off the beach, Jay said. Some of the radio-tagged animals have already been tracked heading to the Hanna Shoal, a shallow area in the middle of the Chukchi, and to the Russian side, he said.

The thousands of walruses gathered at Point Lay may be ready to go elsewhere to find food, Jay said.

“It’s not beyond reason to think that they may have wiped out the food resource, at least in that local area,” he said.” [my bold]

Which just means by the time the media were reporting this phenomenon, it no longer existed.

And in another follow-up on October 9, Krista Langlois from High Country News interviewed two University of Alaska biologist for their take on the matter:

“…two walrus experts currently using a National Science Foundation grant to analyze recent, historic and prehistoric walrus samples to piece together the species’ 4,000-year history say that we don’t understand enough about “normal” walrus behavior to know whether the massive haul-out is, in fact, unusual. Nicole Misarti, a research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Lara Horstmann, a professor of marine biology, say that it’s certainly not unprecedented: Massive haul-outs of walrus are annual events in Russia, and were recorded in Alaska in 1938. Just because the walrus haven’t hauled out in this specific location in such large numbers during the limited time we’ve been studying them doesn’t mean that the behavior is necessarily abnormal, or related to climate change.

Nonetheless, Misarti and Horstmann aren’t ruling climate change out, either. There’s no doubt that the trend of more and more walrus gathering on Alaskan beaches in recent years mirrors a decrease in Arctic sea ice, “but nobody knows enough about walrus to say whether it’s a lack of sea ice or sea ice moving in a different direction or prey moving to different areas,” Misarti says. “Those are the burning questions.”

Plus, reports claiming that the haul-out is harmful to the walrus or is a “crisis” are overblown, the researchers say. “It’s important that people realize it’s not a mass die off and it’s not a mass stranding,” Horstmann notes.

It’s not like whales stranded on a beach. The walrus are purposely hauling out there — they’re not helpless and the numbers of trampled young are actually quite low so far,” adds Misarti. [my bold]

Read the rest here.

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